Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) lived the first half of his life the way a respectable gentleman was expected to live in 19th century America. He served as a Union officer in the U.S. Civil War and then built a successful law practice. And in the second half of his life he traveled to Asia to promote and revive Buddhism.
Henry Steel Olcott’s unlikely life is better remembered in Sri Lanka than in his native America. Sinhalese Buddhists light candles in his memory every year on the anniversary of his death. Monks offer flowers to his golden statue in Colombo. His image has appeared on Sri Lanka postage stamps. Students of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist colleges compete in the annual Henry Steel Olcott Memorial Cricket Tournament.
Exactly how an insurance lawyer from New Jersey became the celebrated White Buddhist of Ceylon is, as you might imagine, quite a tale.
Olcott’s Early (Conventional) Life
Henry Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1832, to a family descended from the Puritans. Henry’s father was a businessman, and the Olcotts were devout Presbyterians.
After attending the College of the City of New York Henry Olcott entered Columbia University. The failure of his father’s business caused him to withdraw from Columbia without graduating. He went to live with relatives in Ohio and developed an interest in farming.
He returned to New York and studied agriculture, founded an agricultural school, and wrote a well-received book on growing types of Chinese and African sugar cane. In 1858 he became the agriculture correspondent for the New York Tribune. In 1860 he married the daughter of the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Rochelle, New York.
At the beginning of the Civil War he enlisted in the Signal Corps. After some battlefield experience he was appointed a Special Commissioner for the War Department, investigating corruption in recruitment (mustering) offices. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel and assigned to the Department of the Navy, where his reputation for honesty and industriousness earned him an appointment to the special commission that investigated President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
He left the military in 1865 and returned to New York to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1868 and enjoyed a successful practice specializing in insurance, revenue, and customs law.
To that point in his life, Henry Steel Olcott was the very model of what a proper Victorian-era American gentleman was supposed to be. But that was about to change.
Spiritualism and Madame Blavatsy
Since his Ohio days Henry Olcott had harbored one unconventional interest — the paranormal. He was especially fascinated by spiritualism, or the belief that the living can communicate with the dead.
In the years after the Civil War, spiritualism, mediums and seances became a widespread passion, possibly because so many people had lost so many loved ones in the war. Around the country, but especially in New England, people formed spiritualist societies to explore the world beyond together.
Olcott was drawn into the spiritualist movement, possibly to the consternation of his wife, who sought a divorce. The divorce was granted in 1874. That same year he traveled to Vermont to visit some well-known mediums, and there he met a charismatic free spirit named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.
There was little that was conventional about Olcott’s life after that.
Madame Blavatsy (1831-1891) had already lived a life of adventure. A Russian national, she married as a teenager and then ran away from her husband. For the next 24 or so years she moved from one place to another, living for a time in Egypt, India, China, and elsewhere. She claimed also to have lived in Tibet for three years, and she may have received teachings in a tantric tradition. Some historians doubt a European woman visited Tibet before the 20th century, however.
Olcott and Blavatsky blended together a mix of Orientalism, Transcendentalism, spiritualism, and Vedanta — plus a bit of flim-flam on Blavatsky’s part — and called it Theosophy. The pair founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 and began publishing a journal, Isis Unveiled, while Olcott continued his law practice to pay the bills. In 1879 they moved the Society’s headquarters to Adyar, India.
Olcott had learned something about Buddhism from Blavatsky, and he was eager to learn more. In particular he wanted to know the Buddha’s pure and original teachings. Scholars today point out that Olcott’s ideas about “pure” and “original” Buddhism largely reflected his 19th century western liberal-transcendentalist romanticism about universal brotherhood and “manly self-reliance,” but his idealism burned brightly.
The White Buddhist
The following year Olcott and Blavatsky traveled to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. The Sinhalese embraced the pair with enthusiasm. They especially were thrilled when the two white foreigners knelt to a large statue of the Buddha and publicly received the Precepts.
Since the 16th century Sri Lanka had been occupied by Portuguese, then by Dutch, then by British. By 1880 the Sinhalese had been under British colonial rule for many years, and the British had been aggressively pushing a “Christian” education system for Sinhalese children while undermining Buddhist institutions.
The appearance of white westerners calling themselves Buddhists helped to begin a Buddhist resurgence that in decades to come would turn into a full-blown rebellion against colonial rule and the forced imposition of Christianity. Plus it grew into a Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalism movement that impacts the nation today. But that is getting ahead of Henry Olcott’s story, so let’s go back to the 1880s.
As he traveled Sri Lanka, Henry Olcott was dismayed at the state of Sinhalese Buddhism, which seemed superstitious and backward compared to his liberal-transcendentalist romantic vision of Buddhism. So, ever the organizer, he threw himself into re-organizing Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools, some of which are prestigious colleges today. Olcott wrote a Buddhist Catechism for that is still in use. He traveled the country distributing pro-Buddhist, anti-Christian tracts. He agitated for Buddhist civil rights. The Sinhalese loved him and called him the White Buddhist.
By the mid-1880s Olcott and Blavatsky were drifting apart. Blavatsky could charm a drawing-room of spiritualist believers with her claims of mysterious messages from invisible mahatmas. She was not so interested in building Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka. In 1885 she left India for Europe, where she spent the rest of her days writing spiritualist books.
Although he made some return visits to the U.S., Olcott considered India and Sri Lanka his homes for the rest of his life. He died in India in 1907.
Henry Steel Olcott
(This article originally was published on About.com in 2014.)
The Cula-Saccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 35) describes a debate between the Buddha and a character named Saccaka, who is addressed as Aggivessana, a reference to his family. Saccaka was famous for his debating skills; he was also, as we might say today, full of himself.
He bragged to his followers that anyone foolish enough to debate him was soon reduced to a quivering mess, dripping sweat from his armpits.
When Saccaka heard the Buddha was nearby, he vowed to thoroughly trounce him in debate. He would drag him, shake him, and thump him, Saccaka promised.
In particular, Saccaka wanted to debate the Buddha about the skandhas and the self. The Buddha taught that the skandhas — form, sensation, perception, discrimination/fabrication, awareness/consciousness — were not the self, and Saccaka disagreed. He believed these things were exactly the self, and he was certain he could show the world he was right and the Buddha was wrong.
So Saccaka and his followers found the Buddha, and after exchanging greetings and preliminaries Saccaka said, “Yes, Master Gotama, I’m saying that ‘Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, fabrications are my self, consciousness is my self.’ As does this great multitude.”
“What does the great multitude have to do with anything?” the Buddha replied. “Please make your own assertion.” Saccaka repeated, “Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, fabrications are my self, consciousness is my self.”
“Tell me what you think, Aggivessana. Does a king have the power in his own domain to execute those who deserve execution, to fine those who deserve to be fined, and to banish those who deserve to be banished?” the Buddha asked. And Saccaka declared stoutly that a king does have such power.
The Buddha’s next question was, “What do you think, Aggivessana? When you say, ‘Form is my self,’ do you wield power over that form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus’?”
The Buddha’s point is that the skandhas are not the self because they are not subject to the mastery of the self. You cannot will your hair to change color or your vision to improve.
What cannot be brought under one’s complete mastery or control cannot be identified as “my self.”
And at this point Saccaka realized he had just lost the debate, so he refused to answer. When he refused to answer a second time, a spirit named Vajrapani appeared in the air over Saccaka’s head. Some of you might recognize Vajrapani as the name of a transcendent or iconic bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism. He is also a dharmapala, or dharma protector, in Tibetan Buddhism. But this sutta dates to a time before Mahayana, and he is identified in Pali as a yakkha, which is a type of being that is more fortunate than a hungry ghost but not as exalted as a deva (“god”).
The name Vajrapani means “vajra in hand,” and indeed, Vajrapani carried an “iron thunderbolt,” or vajra, in this usage a weapon also associated with the Hindu deity Indra. Later, in Mahayana Buddhism, vajra would become the name of a ritual object representing the wisdom of sunyata, or emptiness.
Vajrapani threatened to split Saccaka’s head into seven pieces if he didn’t answer the question. Some western scholars have interpreted this as a literal death threat, but splitting heads into various numbers of pieces comes up occasionally in old Buddhist texts, and in context it usually refers to some kind of mental breakdown, not death. For example, in the Candima Sutta of the Pali Tipitika, a character named Rahu had seized another character named Candima but was compelled to let her go, saying, “If I had not released Candima my head would have split into seven pieces. While yet I live, I should have had no happiness.”
There is a kind of existential threat implied here, but it is not to Saccaka’s body. The “threat” is to his understanding of self — his self-identity and his ego.
The terrified Saccaka looked to the Buddha for refuge and thereby accepted his teaching on the nature of the self. Thus it was that the Buddha won the debate. He then gave Saccaka teachings so that he would better understand what had just happened. And later, the Buddha indulged in a bit of fun with Saccaka. The Buddha was not shaking, he said, and not dripping sweat from his armpits, and he opened his robe in front of the assembly so that they could see he spoke the truth.
There is a translation of the Cula-Saccaka Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu online at Access to Insight. Another good translation, by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, is in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, published by Wisdom Publications (2005).
Alan Watts (1915-1973) possibly did more to popularize Zen Buddhism in the West than anyone else. His many books on Zen are still in print, and people still look to him for inspiration and insight. A large part of the West got its first impressions of Zen from Watts.
Western Zen regards Watts with some ambivalence today, however. Yes, he was a strong writer and a man of keen intelligence and learning, and his books and recorded lectures still bring people into Zen centers. Many of today’s western Zen teachers began their Zen journey by reading Alan Watts.
However, there were aspects of Zen that Watts misunderstood. He sometimes pulled ancient teachers’ words out of context and imposed his own ideas and interpretations on them. Most egregiously, his misreading of one old koan caused him to dismiss the importance of zazen, Zen meditation, in Zen practice.
Much of Watts’s understanding of Zen is reflected in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” which was published in the spring 1958 issue of the Chicago Review.
This issue was a landmark in American Zen history. It contained nine articles on Zen Buddhism plus an excerpt from the forthcoming Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road had been a literary sensation of 1957. After the Chicago Review issue even Time magazine gushed (July 21, 1958) “Zen Buddhism is growing more chic by the minute.”
The Zen being gushed about was largely Beat Zen. But is chic Zen still Zen? And how does this essay stand up after more than 55 years? Here are my impressions.
What Watts Got Wrong
Watts’s first sentence threw me — “It is as difficult for Anglo-Saxons as for the Japanese to absorb anything quite so Chinese as Zen.” Brushing aside the cringe-worthy use of “Anglo-Saxon” to stand in for “westerners,” it seems to me Japan absorbed Zen pretty darn well. But this leads us into the heart of what Watts got wrong.
Reading on, one learns that the “square Zen” of the title is Japanese Zen, “with its clearly defined hierarchy, its rigid discipline, and its specific tests of satori.” He compared this to the older version, Chinese Zen, called Chan, which he imagined as being natural and effortless and more like Taoism.
However, Watts’s idealized view of Chinese Chan rather ignores the fact that Chan also had and has hierarchies, discipline and tests, and history suggests these may have been as defined, rigid and specific in Tang Dynasty China than they became in Japan. The history of Chinese Chan is full of stories about monks spending years in meditation and other disciplines to realize enlightenment. The free-wheeling Zen of Watts’s imagination never existed.
For example, Watts quotes Lin-Chi (Linji Yixuan, d. 866), a prominent Tang Dynasty Chan master, saying, “In Buddhism there is no place for using effort.” This line has been translated by others as “There isn’t so much to do,” and “The Law of Buddha has no place for elaborate activity,” and I don’t know which is more accurate.
What I do know is that, by our standards, Linji must have been a terror. He was famous for his rigorous teaching methods, which included shouts, insults and punches. So where is the “little place for using effort”? In fact, it takes most of us considerable effort before it gets effortless. For that matter, Watt’s chief inspiration was the Japanese scholar D.T.Suzuki, who learned Zen in a Rinzai monastery — about as “square” as it gets.
I’m thinking now of a line from a poem by a venerable Theravadin teacher named Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera, who described a mind purified of defilements — “The mind, unenthralled with anything, stops its struggling.” Yes; when the mind stops struggling, there is no effort. Zen literature, Japanese as well as Chinese, is full of descriptions of the effortless state of a realized being. The great paradox of practice is that most people must make great effort to stop struggling and be effortless. Buddhism is easy, yes, but we are difficult.
The essay is laced with many references to Taoism. The degree to which Chinese Buddhism, Chan included, was influenced by Taoism is being challenged by many current scholars. Some have decided there was no influence at all. I wouldn’t go that far; I came to Zen through philosophical Taoism, and it seems to me there was some influence, if only in how Chan explained things. But it does go too far to assume that Tang Dynasty Chan was as much Taoist as Buddhist, as Watts seemed to do.
What Watts Got Right
Watts also was critical of Beat Zen, which sometimes saw Zen as “undisciplined whimsy” and “justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life.” Watts thought the Zen of Allen Ginsberg‘s poetry was too indirect and didactic, while Jack Kerouac‘s definition of Zen — “I don’t know. I don’t care. And it doesn’t make any difference” — bristled with self-defense and missed Zen entirely.
Yes, it’s fair to say, in hindsight, that Kerouac idealized Zen without actually understanding it, and Ginsberg’s spiritual journey would soon leave Zen behind. Other Beats — notably Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen — would come to know Zen more intimately, however, in time.
The chief thing Watts got right in this essay, I think, was his analysis of why much of postwar America became fascinated with Zen. In Zen, said Watts, people saw an antidote to the “anti-naturalness” of both Christianity and modern life. And perhaps you had to live in the 1950s to appreciate how true that was.
The 1950s were a time in which an America still healing from World War II and the Korean War demanded loyalty and conformity. People were racked with fear of enemies abroad and nuclear annihilation. At the same time, much of the old domestic prewar social order was being challenged by desegregation and the nascent civil rights movement..
As a result, much of America retreated into hyper-conformity and a desperate clinging to traditionalism. As Betty Friedan documented in her landmark The Feminine Mystique (1964), for example, the role of women in society became narrower and more constricting after World War II than it had been before.
The Beat Generation was an organically human response to what mainstream society had become. And there was something about Zen that offered the tantalizing possibility of the reintegration of human and nature and a release from the compulsive armoring against everything that marked the 1950s.
The widespread unease breaking through the facade of 1950s conformity “arises from the suspicion that our attempt to master the world from the outside is a vicious circle in which we shall be condemned to the perpetual insomnia of controlling controls and supervising supervision ad infinitum,” Watts said. Zen offered a “refreshing sense of wholeness to a culture in which the spiritual and the material, the conscious and the unconscious, have been cataclysmically split.”
Thus it was that Zen Buddhism became chic, for a time. Fortunately, it is less so now. Yet it still offers the same path of reintegration and liberation it offered then.
What of Alan Watts? If Watts’s books “speak” to you, by all means, enjoy them. He had a lot of valuable things to say. If your chief interest is to find a book that will tell you about Zen, please see “Beginner Zen Books.”
(Originally written by me and published on buddhism/about.com. Since the parent company is no longer hosting this article, all rights revert to me.)
Although it wasn’t his intention, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) touched off a series of events that put Buddhism on the map, so to speak.
Alexander set out to conquer the world. Although he fell short, at its peak his empire stretched from Europe to the Indus Valley, and dipped into Egypt. The campaign stalled when he reached the Punjab in 326 BCE, however. Alexander had planned to push farther east into the Kingdom of Magadha. But his weary soldiers had heard stories of the vast army of Magadha, and they imagined the mighty Ganges lined with thousands of fresh troops and trumpeting war elephants. They refused to go on, and so Alexander’s legendary conquests ended in the Punjab, and he died three years later in Babylon.
While Alexander was stalled in the Punjab, he was accompanied by a local mercenary named Chandragupta Maurya. In 321 BCE Chandragupta succeeded where Alexander failed by seizing the throne of Magadha. The enterprising Chandragupta expanded his new Mauryan Empire to fill most of modern-day India and a portion of what is now Bangladesh.
After Alexander’s death, the conqueror’s vast territories were claimed by his Macedonian generals. One general, Seleucus I Nicator (ca. 358–281 BCE), came to rule a large part of what is now Turkey and much of today’s Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Seleucus encouraged Greek settlements in his vast territory. These settlements, combined with those left behind by Alexander, introduced considerable Greek influence into west and central Asia.
In 305 BCE, Seleucus marched on Chandragupta’s empire. This adventure did not go well for Seleucus, and the Mauryan Empire grew to include much of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan as a result. Chandragupta abdicated to his son Bindusara in 297 BCE. and retired to be a Jain ascetic. After Bindusara came Ashoka, whose reign began about 268 BCE.
Ashoka the Great (ca. 304–232 BCE) is remembered as a brutally ruthless military conqueror—until about 260 BCE, that is, when he beheld the bloody results of his conquest of Kalinga (near today’s Orissa). In one of the great conversion stories of all time, Ashoka renounced war and conquest and declared that his rule would be guided by the Buddha’s dharma. We know this because Ashoka’s story is told in his own words on the thirteenth of fourteen major “rock edicts” inscribed on boulders and sometimes in caves throughout his empire, along with other sorts of inscriptions. Edicts also were carved on magnificent stone pillars, forty to fifty feet high, which were topped with elaborately carved animals, most often Asian lions. These also often were carved with a dharma wheel, the symbol of Buddhism, with 24 spokes.
Ashoka pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia Commons.
Ashoka’s edicts have been discovered in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, as well as India, written in the local languages of the time. Edicts in the western Mauryan empire were in Greek, and one inscription discovered near Kandahar in 1958 was written in Greek and Aramaic.
In his edicts Ashoka proclaimed his faith in the Buddha and his dharma, but he did not attempt to teach Buddhist doctrines. In fact, all religions were welcome in his empire, he said, as long as they respected each other. The emperor was more interested in the way people manifested the dharma in their behavior. In the second pillar edict, for example, he said, “Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.”
Ashoka also used dharma as a diplomatic tool, sending emissaries carrying his edicts to the rulers of other states, near and far, including the Seleucid Empire, Egypt, Greece, and the island that is today’s Sri Lanka (“Tamraparni”). The mission to Sri Lanka, at least, was a rousing success.
In the fifth major rock edict, Ashoka declared he had appointed dharma mahamatras—dharma officials—to work among the Greeks and other people in his western territory. The mahamatras were charged with the promotion of dharma and the welfare and happiness of all those devoted to dharma. This is significant because, after Ashoka, Buddhism would blossom on the western territories of the Mauryan Empire—today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Ashoka’s words on generosity and religious tolerance and his concern for the welfare of his people are inspiring to read even today. Yet it appears there was some pushback from the Brahmins, who may have felt put out by Ashoka’s call to end animal sacrifices. After Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, his several heirs who hadn’t been ordained showed no interest in the dharma and instead spent the next forty-seven years squabbling over the throne, while such outer provinces as Gandhara, Kashmir, and the Punjab broke away. The last Mauryan ruler was assassinated by an ambitious general during a military review in 185 BCE.
The many rock and pillar edicts remained scattered through much of Asia. However, those written in the various Indo-Aryan languages of his time used a written script that fell out of use, and people forgot how to read it. And the memory of Ashoka himself was lost in India, although he was honored in Sri Lanka. During the Mughal reign of India, 1526-1720, some of the pillars were put to use supporting minarets. When traders of the British East India Company arrived in the 18th century, they were told the pillars were the abandoned walking sticks of a giant. But an East India Company official named James Prinsep deciphered the script in the 1830s, and the story of Ashoka the Great was heard again in the world, at long last.
And when India became an independent nation in 1947, Ashoka’s 24-spoke dharma wheel was placed in the center of the new nation’s flag.
The Axial Age was a period of history between about 800 and 200 BCE, roughly. It’s called “Axial Age” because it was a pivotal time in world religion and philosophy. I acknowledge that the Axial Age was a trendy thing a few years ago but is widely dismissed in academia today as being too “woo.” Also, Axial Age developments don’t always neatly stay inside those exact centuries. But it’s still interesting.
The phrase originated with the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, who noted that during this period there was a shift—or a turn, as if on an axis—away from more predominantly localized concerns and toward transcendence.
What does “transcendence” mean? The term literally means “to go beyond.” In the case of the Axial Age “revolution” in human thought about the world, “going beyond” has several meanings, according to the Canadian philosopher and sociologist Charles Taylor. Among them are a shift to thinking about the cosmos and the way it works rather than taking for granted that it works, the rise of second-order thinking about the ways that human beings even think about the universe in the first place and come to know it, and a turn away from merely propitiating tribal or civic deities (which Taylor characterized as “feeding the gods”) and toward speculation about the fate of humanity, about human beings’ relationship with the cosmos, and about “The Good” and how human beings can be “good.”
Of the three living, major world religions, there are three that can legitimately claim to be more than 3,000 years old, predating the Axial Age. These are Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. However, Hinduism and Judaism as they exist today mostly took shape during the Axial Age.
In the 1st millennium the tradition we now call Hinduism entered a phase called “Vedanta,” which means “end of the Vedas.” The Vedas are the earliest scriptures of Hinduism; the oldest, the Rig Veda, dates to at least 1200 BCE and is possibly much older. But in the 1st millennium BCE new scriptures emerged called the Upanishads. The principle Upanishads are believed to have been composed between 800 and 300 BCE. While the Vedas are primarily concerned with correct ritual and the propitiation of the gods, the Upanishads are more like sophisticated philosophical treatises that touch on many things, including the nature of reality and the self. Hinduism as we know it today was very much shaped by the Upanishads as well as by the epic poems the Ramayana (ca. 300 BCE) and the Mahabharata, which includes the exquisite Bhagavad Gita, one of the jewels of the world’s religious literature. The Mahabharata is a vast thing composed by many authors over a period of centuries, probably between 400 BCE and 300 CE.
Judaism is honored as the first monotheistic religion. However, genuine monotheism ― the insistence that there is only one God ― didn’t develop within Judaism until well into the 1st millennium BCE. It’s my understanding that most biblical scholars date the current version of the Torah to about the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, during the Babylonian captivity, although some parts of the Tanakh are thought to be considerably older. I confess that I know less about the development of Jewish scriptures than Hindu scriptures, so if someone wants to correct me on that I would be grateful.
Now, what else happened in the 1st millennium BCE?
*The Buddha probably lived sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. He is said to have been born in what is now Nepal, but he spent most of his life in the area of northeast India now contained within the states of Bihar and Utter Pradesh.
*Mahavira, a patriarch of Jainism, also probably lived in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE in what is now Bihar. Jainism is a religion of India that is less well known in the West but still alive in Asia. Its origins can be dated to about 800 BCE, although it claims to be older.
(Note: Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists lived in the same territories and butted heads frequently in 1st millennia BCE India. Both Jains and Buddhists rejected the Vedas, which set them against the Hindus. The Buddha also disagreed with much that was written in the early Upanishads available in his time, while (as I understand it) the Jains were more agreeable with at least some of the Upanishads. This meant Jains and Buddhists disagreed with each other on several core doctrines, although their moral teachings were similar. There are entire sutras in the Pali Canon devoted to the Buddha refuting the doctrines of Jains, who were called “Niganthas” in Pali. What the Jains thought of the Buddha I do not know.)
* The great Kong Fuzi of China, better known in the West as Confucius, probably lived at about the same time as the Buddha, in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.
* The Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching) also was probably compiled sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. However, the author of attribution, Laozi (“old man”), is probably a myth.
*Greek philosophy! The first Greek philosopher of record was a guy named Thales, who lived about 624-545 BCE, sorta kinda maybe. The hugely influential Pythagoras and Heraclitus lived about the same time as the Buddha and Confucius. And I know you’ve heard of Socrates, 469-399 BCE. Plato and Aristotle followed shortly after.
What I don’t know: Was anything similar happening in the Western Hemisphere? I do not know. What about Africa? I do not know. Here is an article about African spirituality that describes traditions being crushed under the weight of Christian and Islamic missions.
Some Axial Age developments were connected to each other, and some were not. The Hindus (who weren’t called that yet, I don’t think), Jains, and Buddhists were busily disagreeing with each other in India and certainly had connections. Confucians and Taoists intermingled in China. I haven’t said much about the Zoroastrians, but one can find traces of Zoroastrianism in Judaism. This may date to the Babylonian captivity, as Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia at the time. Otherwise, many of these developments happened independently of each other. Axial Age ideas about the nature of reality, of time and the cosmos, of what it means to be alive and to be human, whether there are gods or no gods, etc., are quite diverse.
You can find very similar basic moral rules in each tradition, but I would argue that’s because those moral rules are necessary for civilization to exist at all. Without agreed-upon rules discouraging homicide and theft and whatnot, for example, there can be no communities. Humans would have remained stuck in caves guarding their lives and flint arrowheads against the people in the next cave. Axial Age people would have internalized such moral codes long before the Axial Age. I do not believe commonality in moral rules points to a common origin of tradition.
However, what happens at the end of the Axial Age, and after, may be more significant. From the 4th century BCE and through the next several centuries, world events happened that brought these diverse civilizations and their religions and philosophies together in ways that scholars are still trying to sort out. I’ll touch on that in another post.
[This review of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was originally published at About.com in 2011.]
The Buddha said, Though a fool may associate with a wise man, he no more understands dhamma than a spoon tastes the soup. I don’t think Stephen Batchelor is a fool, but I admit I’ve been tempted to title this review of Confession of a Buddhist Athiest “A Tale Told by a Spoon.”
The book is an autobiographical account of Batchelor’s experiences in Buddhism, which are considerable. Along the way, there grew in him a desire to liberate Buddhism from its Asian strictures and “rearticulate the core Buddhist ideas in a contemporary language that spoke directly to the concerns of men and women living in twentieth-century Europe and America.” He enlarges on these ideas in the latter part of Confessions.
Batchelor’s ideas are not without value, and many people will find Batchelor’s version of Buddhism more palatable than “traditional” Buddhism, and that’s fine. But it wouldn’t satisfy me, and in any event a great many remarkable teachers already have established the foundations of Buddhism in the West, Buddhism that already is “rearticulated,” accessible and meaningful for westerners without being watered down or artificially “westernized.”
For the record, I agree with Batchelor that over the centuries Buddhism became cluttered with considerable cultural claptrap that doesn’t relate to the West; we have our own claptrap, thank you very much. However, Batchelor’s version of Buddhism is too severely truncated. He’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Batchelor as a Monk
The book begins with the 19-year-old Batchelor tramping about Asia in the early 1970s and eventually arriving at Dharamsala, India, center of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. He took up the study of vajrayana in Dharamsala and received monk’s ordination in 1974, when he was 21.
The credulity of youth still lingers in Batchelor’s account of that time. At first, he plunged into vajrayana with some enthusiasm. However, the Buddhism he found in Dharamsala was encrusted with centuries of arcana, all deeply bound to Tibetan culture and alien to a westerner. The lamas did not relate to what he was experiencing and didn’t seem to give him the guidance he needed at that point in his practice.
I don’t blame Batchelor for eventually rebelling against, in his words, visualizing himself “as the bull-headed Yamantaka or the blood-drinking Vajrayogini in their celestial mansions of light.” Frankly, I think I would have bailed a lot sooner than Batchelor. Old-school vajrayana isn’t for everyone.
The more troubling part of this account is that Batchelor’s understanding of dharma remained anchored to cognitive knowledge and intellectual concepts, as it seems to do to this day. Whatever doesn’t make intellectual sense to him, he rejects. And all too often, there goes the baby.
For example, on page 34 of Confessions Batchelor writes about the 7th-century philosopher Dharmakirti — “His philosophy gave me an excellent conceptual framework for interpreting my practice of mindfulness as well as the other experiences I had had in Dharamsala.” However, “Emptiness of inherent existence, by contrast, is just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction.”
“Emptiness of inherent existence” — shunyata — is the key to understanding Mahayana Buddhism. Without some appreciation for shunyata, you will misunderstand everything else. Realization of shunyata is the perfection of great wisdom evoked by the Heart Sutra. And it’s a “conceptual and intellectual abstraction” only until one learns how to reach beyond the limits of conceptual thought to understand it.
But notice that Batchelor sets up a contrast between “conceptual frameworks” that he can grasp intellectually (Dharmakirti, who proposed an atomistic explanation of reality) and those he can’t — emptiness, shunyata (and, for the record, Dharmakirti’s proposals do not countermand shunyata). And there is the brick wall he built around his understanding of Buddhism.
When I say “reaching beyond conceptual thought” I am not talking about merely “believing in” doctrine. And yes, here is the Zen student talking, but I think ultimately most schools of Buddhism provide a path beyond concept and belief, one way or another.
Buddhism and Belief
I realize that Stephen Batchelor’s most well-known book is titled Buddhism Without Beliefs. But he seems to think that to have a Buddhism Without Beliefs requires some bold reconfiguration of Buddhism. I agree belief is not the point of Buddhism; I disagree that Buddhism has to be reconfigured.
You could define many Buddhist doctrines as descriptions of how an enlightened being perceives reality. But developing an intellectual understanding of or “believing in” a doctrine is not enlightenment. Intimate perception, direct realization, waking up to a transformed perception of reality — is enlightenment.
Whether the thing believed in is factual or not, beliefs are not reality. But neither are concepts or ideas.
In some schools — and I understand this is how Tibetan Buddhism works, on the whole — accepting doctrine becomes a foundation of practice. But as the student matures spiritually, beliefs and concepts should fall away and be replaced by direct, personal realization.
Zen takes a somewhat different approach. At the very beginning Zen students are encouraged to release beliefs — including disbeliefs — assumptions, and expectations, and develop “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind,” which Batchelor calls “deep agnosticism.” Some Zen teachers don’t introduce much in the way of doctrine to a student until the student is well into this process. Then the student can study doctrines without turning them into a mere belief system.
Here’s a small example: Once I saw a group of Zen newbies ask the late John Daido Loori, Roshi, a question about reincarnation, which they were imagining as souls reborn in new bodies. “There is no such thing as reincarnation,” he said, flatly. But at another retreat — a formal sesshin attended only by Zen students — he said, “There is reincarnation, but it isn’t what you think it is.” Whatever we think rebirth is, is not what it is. Conceptual understanding won’t cut it.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s go back and pick up Batchelor’s years with Zen.
In 1980, after his break with Tibetan Buddhism, Batchelor chose to work with the Korean Zen Master Kusan Sunim. However, it’s clear from his own account that he refused to look at much of what Master Kusan was trying to show him.
“I maintained an ironic but respectful distance from Korean Zen orthodoxy,” he said. “I put Kusan Sunim’s instructions into practice, but in a way that corresponded to my own interests and needs” (p. 66). This is stunning. It’s like taking cooking lessons from Wolfgang Puck but refusing to touch food. And this is not “deep agnosticism.”
He was advised to abandon any notion of a goal or resolution. Yet he writes (p. 68), “Despite the constant emphasis on questioning and doubt, I was again being primed to arrive at an insight that would confirm the foregone conclusions of an orthodoxy.” I’d say this is “deep distrust,” not “deep agnosticism.” Big difference.
Master Kusan (page 68) tried to explain kensho, through use of koan-like questioning — “Finally, when this mass of questioning enlarges to a critical point, it will suddenly burst. The entire universe will be shattered and only your original nature will appear before you. In this way you will awaken.”
Unfortunately, Batchelor interpreted “your original nature will appear before you” in the most drearily literal way: “Once again, I found myself confronted by the specter of a disembodied spirit,” Batchelor writes. “The logic of Kusan Sunim’s argument failed to convince me.”
Had Batchelor no experience with Zen I could forgive him for that, but he “studied” with Master Kusan for three years. What a wasted opportunity!
“Original self” is a common metaphor for Buddha-nature, which might be thought of as the fundamental unity beneath all existence. Buddha-nature is vital to Zen, but merely believing in a doctrine of Buddha-nature has no function. This original self must be intimately experience to be transformative.
As explained in the “Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” Zen uses language in a way that is not intended to make literal sense, but is rather a presentation of understanding beyond words and concepts. The practice can enable a direct experience that is not sensory — no visions, no voices, no disembodied spirits — but instead is pure realization without the duality of “observer” and “the thing observed.”
In the Rinzai school, kensho (usually triggered by koan study) is considered the “gateless gate,” the point at which the student is ready to begin serious training. In this light, Master Kusan was not making a “logical” argument at all. He was asking Batchelor to stop clinging to concepts and ideas, to crush the dualities, to directly experience not-self. He was urging Batchelor to step through the gateless gate.
Much later in the book, Batchelor expresses some understanding that there’s something to “know” beyond cognition:
“Gotama’s awakening involved a radical shift in perspective rather than the gaining of some special knowledge into some higher truth. He did not use the words know and truth to describe it. He spoke only of waking up to a contingent ground — “this conditionality, conditioned arising” — that until then had been obscured by his attachment to a fixed position. While such an awakening itself is not primarily a cognitive act. It is an existential readjustment, a seismic shift in the core of oneself and one’s relation to the world. Rather than providing Gotama with a set of ready-made answers to life’s big questions, it allowed him to respond to those questions from an entirely new perspective.” [p. 129]
Exactly. Yet in spite of Master Kusan’s patient coaxing, Batchelor refused to wake up to his own radical shift in perspective. And then he decided the enlightenment thing was silly, anyway. He wrote (page 73):
“As a Western convert, I saw Buddhism as a set of philosophical doctrines, ethical precepts, and meditation practices. For me, to be a Buddhist simply meant to accord one’s life with the core values of the tradition: wisdom, compassion, nonviolence, tolerance, calm, and so on.”
That’s very nice, but for that Bodhidharma needn’t have come from the West. He could have just sent a Hallmark card.
Buddhism in the West
The shame of it is that at the very time Batchelor was frustrating himself with unvarnished vajrayana in Dharamsala, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, had already established the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland and had begun teaching in the U.S. The Rinpoche had a genius for making vajrayana “work” for westerners, including lay westerners. Although he died in 1987, he remains a major influence in western Buddhism.
As for Zen — Batchelor chose not to train in Japan, calling Japanese Zen monasteries “essentially training seminaries for married priests.” In other words, he rejected Japanese Buddhism because it wasn’t traditional enough; it no longer follows many of the rules of the Vinaya. Batchelor has a pattern of seeking out the most tradition-crusted forms of Buddhism he can find and then rejecting them, which is something he ought to ask a therapist about.
In any event, in the year 1980, when Batchelor went to Korea, a great many strong Zen masters already were teaching in the West. Taizan Maezumi Roshi was teaching in Los Angeles; Philip Kapleau Roshi had long been teaching in Rochester, New York; Robert Aitken Roshi had established the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu (where he teaches still); Chan master Cheng-yen was in Queens, New York; the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn had founded the Kwan Um school, headquartered in Rhode Island. I could go on.
Of course, Master Kusan also was a highly respected teacher, and if he couldn’t get through to Batchelor it’s possible no one else could have done it, either. But my larger point is that these lineages are flourishing in the West today, along with Theravada, Pure Land, Nichiren, and other schools of Buddhism. And, as Buddhism has always done when it moves into a new culture, it is adapting to the new culture.
Yes, it’s still an uphill slog. Yes, there’s still much flailing around trying to make monastic practices fit into contemporary lay life. But westerners don’t have to settle for Buddhism Lite.
In the second half of the book, Batchelor describes how he withdrew from Buddhist “orthodoxy” and studied the Pali Canon to come to his own conclusions about what the Buddha taught. As he worked through this process, he was influenced by western philosophers and western commentary on Buddhism. By his own account he did not bother with Asian scholarship and commentary on Buddhism.
In a nutshell — Batchelor strongly implies that Buddhism was just fine until the historical Buddha died, at which time ignorant and superstitious Asians got hold of it and mucked it up. But never fear; now rational and enlightened westerners are riding to the rescue, and they will lift it out of the muck and make it all sparkly and fat-free.
To purify Buddhism from the corruption of being metaphysical — a word Batchelor uses as a synonym for “supernatural” — he combed through the Pali Canon looking for what he judged was authentic —
“I also came to recognize that what spoke to me most directly in the Buddha’s teaching were precisely those ideas that could not be derived from the matrix of classical Indian thought. What I needed to do, therefore, was to go carefully through the Pali Canon and extract all those passages that had the stamp of Siddhattha Gotama’s own distinctive voice. Anything attributed to him that could just as well have been said in the classical Indian texts of the Upanishads or Vedas, I would bracket off and put to one side. Having done this, I would then have to see whether what I had sifted out as the Buddha’s word provided an adequate foundation for formulating a coherent vision for leading a contemporary lay Buddhist life.” [pp. 100-101]
Now, this is certainly an interesting thing to do, although I’m not sure what it proves. There is no logical reason to assume that Siddhartha Gotama didn’t incorporate some classical Indian thought into his teachings. The culture in which he lived his life was saturated with classical Indian thought, after all.
This exercise is the basis for Batchelor’s rejection of doctrines such as rebirth and karma. But Buddhist teachings about rebirth (about which I am agnostic, for the record) and karma differ in several ways from what’s presented in the Upanishads. It is logical to infer from this that Siddhartha Gotama did not reject classical Indian thought wholesale, but instead built upon it.
(Note: For a brief explanation of how the historical Buddha’s teachings on karma, as derived from the Pali Canon, differed from that of other Indian schools of his day, see “Karma” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.)
It also strikes me as odd that Batchelor feels a need to defend his own interpretation of Buddhism with scripture, albeit juryrigged scripture. If you disagree with Buddhism, just disagree with Buddhism. Maybe the scriptures are wrong. Maybe the Buddha was wrong. He wasn’t a god, after all.
For someone who celebrates “Buddhism without beliefs,” Batchelor seems awfully eager to create and defend beliefs about the Buddha and Buddhism.
What’s Left Out
In his sifting through the Pali texts, Batchelor came up with “four core elements of the Dhamma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time” (p. 237). These are:
I can’t quarrel with any of that, although I’m sure I have read scholarly commentary on the Four Noble Truths that say some part of it really isn’t a huge departure from other Indian thought of the time. But let’s go on.
Batchelor has some appreciation of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, not-self, which is the most basic and critical distinction between Buddhism and HInduism. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate that anatta (or its Mahayana variation, shunyata) is inseparable from all other doctrine. By all accounts the Buddha’s realization of anatta is at the center of the “radical shift in perspective” that was his enlightenment.
Perhaps Batchelor just isn’t expressing himself well, but through all of his explanations of the Buddha’s teaching there seems to be no hint of anatta. And time and time again, he makes offhand remarks that leave out the perspective of anatta.
For example, he writes why he rejects the doctrine of rebirth — “It made me realize that belief in rebirth was a denial of death. And by removing death’s finality, you deprive it of its greatest power to affect your life here and now.” That’s all right as far as it goes, but it speaks from the perspective of assuming there is one permanent “self” that begins at birth and ends at death. But all schools of Buddhism teach that this permanent “self” is an illusion.
The Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikshu, every moment you are born, decay, and die.” He meant that, every moment, the illusion of “me” renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next. “I” am just a series of thought moments. And birth and death are events in time with no “self” attached to them.
Work with that. Realize it. That’s the path. Without anatta, Buddhism is just a sweet little philosophy. And if that’s all it is, you can have it.
Batchelor complains that Buddhism has been smothered by a rigid orthodoxy. “As I had discovered with my Tibetan and Zen teachers, the body of opinion that constitutes their respective orthodoxies is neither flexible nor negotiable,” he writes (p. 145).
I have no doubt that, over the years, a great many people have argued with Batchelor about his “understanding.” Given his obstinate closed-mindedness, it would take great restraint to do otherwise. In fact, several times while reading this book I manifested as the blood-drinking Vajrayogini, waving a great mystical flaming vajra engraved with the mantra oh, puh-leeze.
But the truth is that across the many schools is a vast diversity of understanding. Take rebirth, for example. I know of a few Zen masters who are publicly agnostic about it. Some teachers say only the effects of a life go forward into a future life, not consciousness. Others do speak of a subtle consciousness or even a “spirit” (but not a “soul,” and don’t ask me what the difference is) that moves into a new life. Sometimes it is explained not as a “passing” of anything, but as nirmanakaya emanations of the dharmakaya.
All I can say is that rebirth isn’t what I think it is. But disbelief closes one off from the possibility of realizing, beyond thought, what it is.
There is also great diversity of opinion on the nature of karma. Batchelor objects to karma as a supernatural justice system that rewards the good and punishes the bad. However, within Soto Zen, I was taught always that karma must not be thought of as a justice system. Karma itself has no more moral sense than gravity, and the harmful or beneficial effects it might create depend on the degree to which the action is conditioned by greed, anger, and ignorance.
I’ve got the book What the Buddha Taught by the late Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin scholar, in front of me — “The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment” (p. 32). So there.
And since karma is an observable phenomenon — on its most mundane level, karma is willful action that creates an effect — I don’t see what’s “supernatural” about it. There are a great many beliefs about karma that seem superstitious even to me, but not karma itself. (And once you start paying attention to it, you notice that at least 80 percent of your waking life amounts to being jerked around by karma. Once you learn to recognize what it is, it’s very useful to work with that.)
However, I am aware that in some schools karma is thought of as a kind of cosmic justice system. I also recently read an essay by a teacher that said one’s individual karma (hello? anatta?) sticks together and moves as one lump into a next life, which seems silly to me. But there is no one orthodoxy.
Getting to Know the Buddha
At some point in his Dharamsala years Batchelor began to study the Pali Canon, the sutras and the Vinaya in particular. He was eager to learn as much as he could about the historical Buddha. What biographical information he found in the Pali texts did not always agree with the Buddha’s standard biography, which I believe is taken mostly from the Buddhacarita, an epic poem written early in the 1st millennium CE by Asvaghosa.
Much of the last half of the book is taken up with Batchelor’s reconstruction of the Buddha’s biography. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the book. Of course, anything we say about the historical Buddha’s life is speculative. His story was not written down by anyone who knew him personally, and his life has been so mythologized it’s hard to know how much factuality, if any, remains.
However, the Pali texts pre-date the Buddhacarita and are supposed to be the recording of an oral tradition begun by the historical Buddha’s disciples after his death. Batchelor’s reconstruction, I would think, is as likely to be accurate as anything else. Batchelor’s argument that the poisoning that caused the Buddha’s death was deliberate is plausible, even though it’s patched together with speculation. I’d like to hear commentary from other historians about this.
Take What You Need, Make It Your Own
I said at the beginning of this review, “Batchelor’s ideas are not without value, and many people will find his version of Buddhism more palatable than ‘traditional’ Buddhism, and that’s fine.” Now that I’ve spent more than three thousand words criticizing Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, you may wonder what I think is “fine” about it.
I don’t think Buddhism is for everyone. But these days many people with no particular interest in Buddhism itself are borrowing bits and pieces of it — such as meditation and mindfulness — and using them, without adopting the whole program.
So there are Catholic nuns sitting zazen and atheist psychologists using mindfulness training as therapy. And if this borrowing helps people somehow, I’m happy. And if people who, for whatever reason, cannot abide traditional Buddhism but find something in Batchelor’s Buddhism Lite that sweetens their lives, I have no problem with that.
However, Batchelor’s perspectives are being touted as a template for some generic Western Buddhism that should supplant all the traditional forms. I object to that, strongly.
This is not to say that he is utterly without insight or that he hasn’t had some profound experiences in practice. But the sad fact is Batchelor is not practicing a Buddhism without beliefs. He has simply jettisoned doctrines that don’t make intellectual sense to him and replaced them with his own ideas about what Buddhism ought to be — in a sense, just another set of beliefs.
This is mostly the text of a talk I gave to the Open Mind Zen Meditation Center in Melbourne, Florida, via Zoom on July 12, 2020. I say mostly because I chickened out on pronouncing the Chinese name Hongren and instead used the Japanese name Konin for the Fifth Patriarch.But here I use Hongren.
I foolishly asked Al to suggest a topic for this talk, and he said, how about gradual and sudden enlightenment. Okay. This is a tricky topic, mostly because there’s some disagreement about what these terms mean. But I’ll do my best. I warn you, though, that this won’t be a dharma talk as much as a wallow in historical nerdiness.
You may hear that Rinzai koan contemplation is a practice of sudden enlightenment, and that Soto shikantaza is a practice of gradual enlightenment. I would not categorize them that way, but many do. Where did this notion of sudden versus gradual come from? And is it even a thing? Let’s take a look.
In the Zen tradition, the controversy over sudden and gradual enlightenment first emerged in the 8th century, in the early Tang Dynasty, which was a time before Zen was even calling itself Zen, or Chan in Chinese.
But let’s start in an earlier time, with the traditional Zen story from the Platform Sutra, which I suspect you’ve all heard. In this story the Fifth Patriarch challenged his students to write a poem expressing their understanding. Whoever wrote the best poem would be his principle dharma heir and receive Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl.
Shenxiu, the highly esteemed senior disciple, wrote a poem that compared mind to a mirror that must be polished to clear away the dust. Junior monk Huineng, a nobody from south China, wrote another verse saying that mind is already pure, and there is no where for dust to collect. Because of this verse the Fifth Patriarch Hongren recognized Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch.
If you look up commentaries on the poems, you can find varying interpretations. The first verse could be interpreted to mean that realizing enlightenment requires a gradual process of purifying the mind, while the second might be saying that enlightenment is already completely present and just needs to be realized. Since Hongren died in 674, we can assume this episode was supposed to have happened in the 7th century.
If you look more closely, it could be argued the two views expressed in the two verses are not necessarily opposed to each other. The prevailing view of the time ― and not just in Zen, but in Chinese Buddhism generally ― was that mind is one, but the one mind has two aspects. To grossly oversimplify, we can call these two aspects the mind of enlightenment and the mind of illusion, and the means to actualize the enlightenment aspect is to quiet the illusion aspect. Again, this is a gross oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it.
I’ve heard it said that while there is no need to polish the mirror, you do need to polish the mirror to fully realize why there is no need to polish the mirror. But as far as I can tell, whether this happens gradually or suddenly doesn’t seem to have been an issue in the 7th century.
If you’ve read my book The Circle of the Way, you’ll know this poetry contest probably didn’t happen in the 7th century or any other time. For one thing, the academic scholars say that Shenxiu and Huineng were not at the Fifth Patriarch’s temple at the same time. And there is good reason to think that the verse attributed to Shenxiu did not represent the understanding of the real Shenxiu. So I don’t think the verses are going to help us get to the bottom of the gradual versus sudden controversy.
After Hongren died in 674, Shenxiu was widely considered to be the most prominent of his students and his principal dharma heir. Shenxiu was a logical choice for the title of Sixth Patriarch. But beginning about the year 730 a dharma heir of Huineng’s named Shenhui went on a crusade to get Huineng recognized as the true Sixth Patriarch.
By that time both Huineng and Shenxiu had been dead for a few years. What might be called the Zen establishment was centered in the imperial city of Luoyang, which was and is in north China, in modern-day Henan province. In 730 this group was led by an heir of Shenxiu’s named Puji.
In 732 Shenhui addressed a large assembly of Zen students and teachers near Luoyang and accused them all of straying from the true path of Zen. And we read in many accounts of this event that one of Shenhui’s criticisms was that the establishment, which Shenhui called the “northern school,” was teaching a gradual approach to enlightenment. The true approach taught by Huineng’s “southern school,” Shenhui argued, was dunwu, or “sudden awakening.” Shenhui continued his criticisms for the next several years. At one point the emperor sent him into exile from Luoyang for causing too much acrimony.
But Shenhui eventually gained the favor of the imperial court because of a war called the An Lushan rebellion, which lasted from 755 to 763. The Tang emperor had to spend a lot of money to pay for an army to defend his rule, and he decided to sell Buddhist ordination certificates to raise it. The heirs of Puji, who had died in 739, refused to sell Buddhist ordinations for money to people who weren’t willing to do the work. But Shenhui had no such scruples. He did such a bang-up job raising money for the emperor that he was given a plum job running the imperial chapel. By then Shenhui was quite elderly, and he enjoyed his position for only a short time before he died, probably in 758. But the imperial favor went a long way toward making Shenhui’s version of Zen history the one that prevailed.
The Platform Sutra, which presents itself as Huineng’s autobiography, is believed to have been written about the year 780. And it probably was written by a disciple of Shenhui who had never met Huineng, although we don’t know that for certain. Its account of the life of Huineng came to be adopted as shared history by the many monastics scattered around China who considered themselves to be descendants of Bodhidharma. The Platform is enormously important to Zen history, even if the story it tells isn’t historical. It helped hold the Zen tradition together through the upheavals of the late Tang Dynasty and after, which some other Chinese Buddhist schools did not survive. The Platform’s teachings, whoever composed them, were embraced. The literary figure of Huineng, which may or may not bear much resemblance to the real Huineng, became the ideal prototype of a Zen teacher. And, of course, all Zen teachers today trace their lineage back to Huineng. The Platform elevated the Diamond Sutra, and the prajnaparamita sutras generally, as the scriptures most central to Zen, which they are to this day. So it was and is a very important text, even if it isn’t historically accurate.
But let’s go back now and look more closely at what Shenhui was complaining about. And here I am at a bit of a loss, because as a non-academic I have access to only bits of the record of Shenhui’s accusations as interpreted by the academic historians, who often have no clue what they’re talking about.
First, let’s look at whether Shenxiu and his heirs had departed from the teachings of Hongren. There is a text called Treatise on theEssentials of Cultivating the Mind attributed to Hongren, and in this treatise we read, “The essence of cultivating the Way is to discern that one’s own body-mind awareness is inherently pure, not subject to birth or death, and without division. Perfect and complete in its self-nature, present awareness is the fundamental teacher. Focusing on it exclusively is superior to reflecting on the awakened ones of the ten directions.”
Then later in the same treatise, Hongren wrote, “All concepts, and all affairs of past, present, and future, should be seen as dust on a mirror – when the dust is gone, true nature naturally becomes clearly visible.” Hmm, that’s where the dust on the mirror came from.
Hongren goes on, “That which is learned by the deluded mind is completely useless. True learning is what is learned by the unconditioned mind, which never ceases perfect awareness.” There’s your one mind with two aspects.
Most of all, Hongren taught, “maintaining awareness of mind is the fundamental basis of nirvana, the essential gateway for entering the path, the basic principle of all the scriptures, and the teacher of all the awakened ones of the past, present, and future.”
We have brief descriptions of a couple of Hongren’s meditation techniques. One sounds a lot like shikantaza to me ― quietly observing the fluctuations of one’s mind. Another technique, especially recommended for beginners, was to focus on the figure one. In Chinese, this would be a horizontal line. The point is that none of this sounds very gradual.
In early Buddhism, in the teachings of the historical Buddha, there are a lot of practices that might be described as gradual. The four foundations of mindfulness is one example. The four dhyanas, or stages of meditative absorption, describe a multi-stage process that takes one eventually to samadhi. But Hongren taught what appears to be one-step meditation techniques that focused on the enlightened mind that is already present.
To this day, most other schools of Buddhism, I believe all other schools, take a much more step by step approach. People start at the shallow end of the pool with water wings and practice all the strokes and kicks, and then move gradually toward the deep end. Zen tosses newbies into the deep end on day one, no floatation devices, sink or swim. And we see that in Hongren’s teaching.
Now, had Shenxiu and his heirs deviated from Hongren’s teachings? This is where having access to the complete record would help. We do get some hints from one scholar-historian, the late John McCrae, that Shenxiu was very much into a metaphorical reinterpretation of scripture, and this was his own thing and not Hongren’s. Other than that, the deeper one gets into what the historians have written about Shenxiu and Shenhui the harder it is to get a clear picture of what was supposed to be gradual or sudden. It’s not even clear if Shenhui taught zazen at all, which makes one wonder how this sudden enlightenment was supposed to happen.
But then I found in Red Pine’s translation and commentary of the Platform Sutra that the Chinese words translated as sudden and gradual can also be interpreted as direct and indirect, and even straightforward and deceitful. In Zen, “direct” can refer to direct contemplation of mind, while “indirect” usually refers to practices such as sutra study or veneration of Buddha images. This makes me suspect that Shenhui’s real beef might have been that the establishment zennies were spending too much time in indirect practices such as metaphorical reinterpretation of scripture. However, it’s also possible that Shenhui was just a born troll who liked stirring up trouble. In any event, this is where we first hear about sudden and gradual enlightenment in Zen.
Not all Zen ancestors in China at the time were part of the northern or southern school controversy. Along with the Luoyang establishment, or “northern school” if you will, and Shenhui’s southern school, there was also the Oxhead school, which had been established in the 7th century and which was very influential in early Zen. The Oxhead teachers maintained neutrality in the northern – southern school controversy.
But the Oxhead school, the so-called “northern” school, and Shenhui’s “southern” school did not survive into the next millennium. The dharma ancestors of all Zen teachers and students today appeared to play no part in this controversy.
The great master Shítóu Xīqiān, the author of the Sandokai ― Identity of Relative and Absolute ― would have been about 30 years old when Shenhui began his crusade and may have begun teaching by then, in what is now Hunan province in south central China. You might remember the line from the Sandokai ― in the Way, there is no northern or southern patriarch. So that was Shitou’s opinion of the matter.
And in the year 730 the great master Mazu Daoyi, who gave us “ordinary mind is the way,” would have been about 20 years old and probably wasn’t teaching yet. Mazu and Shitou are not identified with either the northern or southern school, but they were the dharma ancestors of the two founders of Rinzai and Soto Zen, Master Linji and Master Dongshan, who lived in the 9th century. In Chinese, the schools they founded are called Linji and Caodong. At this point the difference between these teachers and their heirs was mostly a matter of style rather than substance, and I haven’t found anyone carping about sudden and gradual in the 9th century.
So now we skip ahead to the 12th century and the Song Dynasty. By the Song Dynasty it was said that Zen had five houses, which were not really separate schools but more like familial groups of interrelated lineages. One of the five was Linji, and another was Caodong. The others would either fade away or merge with Linji in time.
Now we find masters Hongzhi Zhengjue of the Caodong house, and Dahui Zonggao of the Linji house. Dahui, of course, was the guy who invented huatou contemplation, the first form of koan contemplation, and he was bitingly critical of the meditation practice taught by Hongzhi. Dahui coined the term “silent illumination” for Hongzhi’s practice, which I guess was supposed to be an insult, but I don’t know why.
Somewhat ironically, Hongzhi and Dahui ended up becoming close friends. The rivalry, I suppose you could call it, between them is described by some of the academic historians as a flare-up of the old sudden and gradual controversy from the 8th century. But again, a closer look shows us something else.
Koans, or gongan in Chinese, were popular in the Song Dynasty. The classic collections ― the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity (or Equanimity), and the Gateless Barrier were compiled in the Song Dynasty. These little stories were collected and commented on by teachers of all the Zen houses, including Caodong teachers. They didn’t belong to the Linji tradition alone.
Dahui was, we believe, the first person to take the essential word or phrase of a koan and use it as a focus for zazen. He described sitting with Great Doubt, an all-consuming unease, until the doubt becomes a red-hot ball that cannot be swallowed or spit up. And then, when the mind has no where else to go, realization comes like awakening from a dream.
I occasionally run into a Rinzai student hotshot who thinks that Zen without koan contemplation isn’t “real” Zen. That certainly calls every teacher before the 12th century into question, including Linji himself, who wouldn’t have done koan contemplation because it hadn’t been invented yet. Keep in mind also that in China the student often just works with one huatou his entire life; the student doesn’t work through a curriculum of koans as in Japanese Rinzai. It’s not clear when the curriculum practice began, but it may not have been a standard practice before the Tokugawa shogunate, which began in the 17th century.
But back to Song Dynasty China. Dahui said of Hongzhi’s practice, “The very worst [of all heretical views] is that of silent illumination, with which people become entrenched in the ghostly cave, not uttering a word and being totally empty and still, seeking the ultimate peace and happiness.” In Zen, the “ghostly cave” refers to a kind of meditative cul-de-sac that is very relaxing and pleasant but does not lead to enlightenment. It’s meditation as escapism. For Dahui, Hongzhi’s practice was too passive and did not lead to kensho.
But passivity isn’t what Hongzhi taught. And we know this because he left us extensive writing about his practice of zazen.
“Box and lid [join] and arrow points [meet], harmoniously hitting the mark,” Hongzhi wrote, paraphrasing the Sandokai. He continued, “Do not leave any traces and inside and outside will merge into one totality, as leisurely as the sky clearing of rainclouds, as deep as the water drenching the autumn.”
Hongzhi also wrote, “When the stains from old habits are exhausted, the original light appears, blazing through your skull, not admitting any other matters.” Which sounds like a kensho to me. It’s just a different way of approaching it.
There is an article about silent illumination in the June 2020 issue of Lion’s Roar by Master Guo Gu, a longtime student of the late Chinese Chan Master Sheng Yen. I’d like to read just a bit. He said,
“Silent illumination is the simultaneous practice of stillness and clarity, or quiescence and luminosity. … In silence there is illumination; in stillness, clarity is ever present.
“The Chan tradition does not usually refer to steps or stages. Its central teaching is that we are intrinsically awake; our mind is originally without abiding, fixations, and vexations, and its nature is without divisions and stages. This is the basis of the Chan view of sudden enlightenment. If our mind’s nature were not already free, that would imply we could become enlightened only after we practiced, which is not so. If it’s possible to gain enlightenment, then it’s possible to lose it as well.”
I think this is an enormously important point. In some schools of Buddhism, buddha nature is understood as a potentiality or a seed that must be cultivated. That cultivation is a gradual process. But that’s not true of Zen, and from what I can see it hasn’t been true of Zen since the beginning of Zen. Enlightenment is sudden because it’s already there. From this perspective, all Zen is sudden enlightenment Zen.
Now we get to Dogen. After Dogen reached China in 1223 he eventually studied with Master Rujing in the same temple on Tiantong Mountain in which Hongzhi had taught for thirty years, until his death in 1157. This was not a Caodong temple but a public temple, which means that the abbot was appointed by the emperor, and the abbot could be of any school. And monastics of any school could practice there. It just happened that Rujing of the Caodong house was appointed abbot after Dogen arrived there.
We assume that before Dogen went to China he did koan contemplation under the direction of Myozen in Kyoto. From Rujing, Dogen would have learned silent illumination practice, and that would be the basis of the practice Dogen would call shikantaza.
I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of Dogen and his relationship to kensho, and to koans. Dogen brought a collection of koans back to Japan with him, and some insist this is proof that he really taught koan contemplation even though nothing in his enormous collection of writing so much as hints that he did. But we must remember that at this point in Zen history, the koan collections belonged to all houses of Zen, not just Linji. In fact, it was Hongzhi who compiled the koans of the Book of Serenity (or Equanimity). So I don’t think there’s anything you can read into Dogen’s collecting of koans other than that he appreciated them.
Sitting without goals seems to confuse some people. I have even seen the claim that Dogen didn’t believe in kensho or enlightenment. But that’s nonsense.
We have Dogen’s own account of the summer retreat of 1225 in Tiantong, when the monks of Tiantong were assembled in zazen, still and silent, in the predawn of the monastics’ hall. The monk seated next to Dogen was asleep. Rujing noticed this. “In zazen you must drop body and mind,” Rujing bellowed. “What’s the use of sleeping?” Dogen had a profound enlightenment experience that was a significant moment in his own dharma journey.
My reading of Dogen is that he didn’t advocate kensho because he didn’t like the word. The Japanese word kensho means “seeing one’s true nature.” But this sets up a dichotomy between the thing seen and the person doing the seeing. To speak very crudely, in shikantaza, as soon as you see yourself as a distinct object seeking another distinct object, you’re doing it wrong. And, of course, enlightenment is already immediately present, whether you realize it or not. So, to realize enlightenment you have to give up any notion of being a seeker who is seeking it.
In his lovely book Enlightenment Unfolds, Kazuaki Tanahashi wrote,
“The koan studies of the Linji-Rinzai line are an excellent method for working consciously toward breakthrough. By contrast, Dogen’s training method was to keep students from striving toward breakthrough. Although he fully understood the value of breakthroughs and used breakthrough stories of his ancestors for teaching, he himself emphasized “just sitting,” with complete non-attachment to the goal of attainment. But isn’t freedom from attachment an essential element for achieving breakthroughs?”
Of course, Dogen really was a seeker who deeply questioned what he’d been taught as a novice monk in the main Tendai temple of Enryaku-ji. It was because he was a seeker he found Myozen, who was the heir of Eisai, who had brought Linji transmission to Japan. It was because he was a seeker he went to China. And while in China, we read that he went to many temples and talked to many teachers; he didn’t just sit in the monastic’s hall at Tiantong.
But language tends to trip us up. Even Rujing’s “drop body and mind,” in English anyway, suggests that there is a dropper and things that are dropped. My teacher the late Jion Susan Postal, who was of the Shunryu Suzuki Soto lineage, taught that it is important to not assume personal pronouns in the phrase “drop body and mind.” It’s not something one can willfully do. Body and mind drop of themselves. Dogen said as much when he wrote in Fukanzazengi,
“You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest.”
The closer one looks at Dogen and his teachings, the less one sees of anything gradual. I say it’s a slander to speak of Dogen’s teaching as “gradual enlightenment,” as many do, because gradual versus sudden is a duality that has no basis in ultimate reality. And enlightenment is already present.
I will say, though, that shikantaza isn’t always taught properly. And sometimes the shikantaza practitioner really does stay stuck in a ghost cave that doesn’t lead anywhere. This does happen. But with proper teaching, it shouldn’t happen.
To go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this talk, is “gradual versus sudden” even a thing? I don’t believe it is. All forms of Zen are sudden enlightenment Zen.
At the same time, when you look at the relative side of Zen practice, you see a lot of things that might be mistaken for steps. The ten oxherding pictures come to mind. I understand that as you get to the end of the koan curriculum you encounter Tozan’s Five Ranks. Tozan is Dongshan in the book; he is credited as the founder of the Caodong school. We can tell from his writing that Dogen was influenced by the Five Ranks, but he was critical of teaching it, probably because it can be mistaken to be a step by step practice. It isn’t really, but to those viewing the world as a collection of distinct phenomena, it looks like one. For that matter, Japanese Rinzai developed a koan curriculum to be worked through that might be mistaken for a gradual practice, although I’m not going to call it that.
So let’s put aside gradual versus sudden.
There’s another phrase that comes up in Zen history, which is “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.” In the book I attributed this phrase to the Korean master Pojo Jinul, who was born in the 12th century, but I have since learned that it was probably kicking around in Chinese Zen before that. Here I think we’re getting closer to the practicalities, so to speak, of how this realization thing manifests.
Certainly we come into practice with a brick wall of concepts, illusions, and assumptions that must be broken through in order to even begin to understand what’s going on with Zen. And this is necessary. But it’s important to understand that after such a breakthrough, practice continues. After kensho some confusion can remain, and long-standing mental habits may reassert themselves. What was realized can easily be corrupted by how we conceptualize it, or by the stories we tell ourselves about the experience. And this is why it’s so important to work with a teacher who can help you avoid falling into pits and who can give you a swift kick when you get stuck.
“Too often the disciple, considering that his attainment of this rank is the end of the Great Matter and his discernment of the Buddha-way complete, clings to it to the death and will not let go of it. Such as this is called “stagnant water” Zen; such a man is called “an evil spirit who keeps watch over the corpse in the coffin.” Even though he remains absorbed in this state for thirty or forty years, he will never get out of the cave of self-complacency and inferior fruits of pratyeka-buddhahood.”
A pratyeka Buddha is one who practices alone, only for himself.
We see in even the lives of the great teachers that they often had more than one breakthrough experience. And this doesn’t always happen on the meditation cushion. In his autobiography, Hakuin described a powerful enlightenment experience that occurred while he was reading the Lotus Sutra. This was after he had begun teaching.
And I would say from my own experience that clarity can come gradually. The breakthroughs are important, but as you continue practice the clouds continue to part, sometimes so slowly and subtly that you may not notice it happening right away.
So that’s my take on sudden versus gradual. I hope that some of you who can’t imagine Zen without koan contemplation have a broader view of the Zen tradition. I encourage practitioners of all Zen traditions to keep an open mind and be willing to learn from those other people, whoever they are.
And I wish all of you strong practice through these precarious times. Do stay safe and be well.
I want to speak today about why I think it’s important for Zen students to know something about Zen history.
My first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Loori, used to say that we all live in a box, and the dimensions of the box are made up of who we think we are and what we think our life should be.
The function of psychotherapy and most popular self-improvement programs is to remodel the box ― bring in nicer furniture, maybe expand the space, put in some windows to let light in. But the function of Zen is to help us realize that there is no box.
And it’s only by looking closely at what the box is made of that the ephemeral nature of the box is revealed.
Stories are a common element of boxes. As we live our lives we tend to craft a personal narrative that is all about “me” ― who I think I am, what I think my life should be. The dramatic tension of our story is created by all the ways circumstances frustrate us by not conforming to our expectations and giving us what we want. And deep down, perhaps we cling to a hope that eventually the plotlines will bend in our favor and we can live happily ever after.
Maintaining this personal, ongoing story in which we are the star is one of the ways we maintain our belief in a continuing, permanent self. It’s how we craft our personal identity. The Buddha understood this, and he taught people how to break the connection to their narratives through mindfulness. By paying moment-to-moment attention just to what is, without judgments or intellectual filters or placing experience in any other context, we can begin to realize the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves aren’t reality, and that person starring in our story isn’t really who we are.
A few years ago the Zen teacher Norman Fischer published a book called Sailing Home that is about exploring our personal stories. He wrote that when we stop getting lost in our own plotlines, with their tensions and expectations, we begin to see the feedback loops and old tapes that keep us stuck in suffering.
In the book, Norman Fischer suggested an exercise in which we begin with our earliest memory and then tell our life story as a story and not as a resume. Take two or three memories from childhood, from adolescence, from early adulthood, and so on, and then create a story that connects the memories. Then, go back, dredge up a different set of memories, and do it again. You might find you’ve told two very different stories about two apparently very different people. This exercise might put the question of “who do you think you are?” in a new light.
However, I think it also has to be said that none of us can ever stop crafting a personal story. It’s something we humans are wired to do. We just need to make sure our story is honest and that if provides a healthy psychological foundation for practice and for being a functional human being. And perhaps we shouldn’t take the story too seriously.
Now, history might be defined as the creation of an ongoing narrative on a collective scale. I suspect historians would hate that definition, but let’s go with it for now. In ancient times, what was called history was mostly folktales and myths, some of which might have been based on events that really happened, although not necessarily. These narratives were critical to creating the identities of tribes, or clans, or ethnic groups, or kingdoms. They told people who they were in a collective sense, as members of a particular group. Sometimes histories had to be revised when there was a change in the group, such as a new dynasty conquering an old one. Often when that happened stories about the old kings were forgotten and their images were smashed and replaced.
In the modern era, scholars took hold of history and insisted it be only about events that really happened. That’s a wonderful ideal that hasn’t yet been fulfilled. It is a fact that even now history is revised all the time as new generations of scholars bring new sensibilities and points of view to it.
If we go back to the exercise about creating different stories about ourselves based on different sets of memories, you can apply that to how historians have, consciously or unconsciously, shaped our views about things that have happened in the past. You can take this set of facts and interpret them this way to tell this story; you can take that set of facts and interpret them that way to tell that story. And the two stories may both be factual but still contradict each other.
Right now in the United States we’re having a struggle over relatively recent history. The American Civil War ended 155 years ago, not in 437 BC, and there are vast archives of records documenting exactly what happened. Yet we can’t agree on how that history is told.
In spite of all the memes on social media that complain about people living in the past, the truth is that even though the war is long over, the history of it is very much part of the collective meta-box Americans live in. Much of the standard history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era that followed, and the way that history was taught in American schools for more than a century, was crafted by southern scholars who were Confederate apologists. And these apologists did a bang-up job of indoctrinating generations of American students into a whitewashed and highly romanticized perspective of that part of our history. In other words, thanks to the way this part of our story is told, we have avoided confronting and atoning for slavery all these years.
The facts of this history cannot be disputed. The people who pushed the South into secession were very open in their letters, speeches, and official documents that their primary objective was to maintain a white supremacist culture and the institution of slavery. That’s what they were all about. There is copious documentation for this. Yet that plain fact was not being taught in schools when I was a student, and I don’t know how much it’s being taught now.
So in much of American popular culture, which is the place where we tell our stories about who we think we are and what we think America should be, the Confederacy was about dashing and noble gentlemen warriors fighting for some fuzzy idea of states’ rights or even liberty, not about wealthy slave owners desperate to maintain their wealth and status as lords of a system that was worse than feudalism.
Newer generations of academic historians to this day are working to counter the pro-Confederate romanticism still embedded in American history textbooks and popular literature to tell a more honest story of the Civil War that doesn’t try to pretend it wasn’t about slavery. But I think that must be done before the nation can finally move on and live up to its own ideals of justice and equality. Until we can tell our story of our past correctly, we’re not going to get the present and future right, either.
Buddhist history also has been subject to considerable myth-making and revision. There is very little of the first five or so centuries of Buddhist history that we know with any certainty. What records that we have are fragmentary and conflicting, because they were compiled after the fact by people with obvious points to prove and axes to grind. These records may contain some clues but can’t be accepted at face value as historical fact.
In recent years early Buddhist history has become something of a blank slate on which people, in the West especially, have painted their own versions of what they want it to be. And apparently what they want it to be is more European.
Currently some western philosophy professors and some authors of popular Buddhist books have worked very hard to pull the historical Buddha out of India and move him closer to Europe, especially Greece.
Now, there really is reason to believe there was cross-pollination between Greek and Buddhist civilizations for a time. As I wrote in the first chapter of The Circle of the Way, beginning about the 2nd century BCE and through the early centuries of the first millennium CE, a large part of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and beyond, was a center of Buddhist civilization, primarily Mahayana Buddhism. And this same area was a crossroads of civilizations in which Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and possibly Chinese cultures intermingled. This is important to Zen because we know that most of the Buddhist monks who introduced Buddhism to China in the early first millennium CE came from this same area, following merchants east on the Silk Road into China. So if people see some influence of Greek thought in Mahayana Buddhism, it’s a good guess that’s where it happened.
But “some influence” isn’t good enough for some people. In recent years I’ve seen people who speak with authoritative voices declare that the historical Buddha probably wasn’t influenced by the religions and philosophies of India very much, if at all. Let me just say without going into a lot of detail that that position is utterly unsupportable.
And I ran into a scholar recently who was very sure that the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness appeared suddenly in Buddhism from Greek texts smuggled into monasteries and did not evolve naturally and organically from the historical Buddha’s teachings, as it certainly seems to have evolved. Apparently Asians needed Greeks to explain it to them.
I’m only going to say that one should be enormously skeptical of attempts to make the Buddha and Buddhism more European and less Asian, even when the person making these claims teaches in a university and has a ton of Ph.D.s I am not saying that these people are consciously racist, but I honestly do believe their, shall we say, ethnocentric biases are causing them to project things they want to see on Buddhist history that aren’t actually there. Historians are human beings, and unfortunately the discipline of history has no equivalent to the scientific method to filter out biases.
Now we have Buddhism introduced to China, beginning in the 1st century CE. And now I’m going to be challenged to pronounce Chinese names; let me warn you that I spell better than I pronounce. But I’ll do my best.
China was the great petri dish for Mahayana Buddhism that cultured much extraordinary scholarship and a rich diversity of schools, including Huayan, Pure Land, and Tiantai as well as Zen, which of course in China was called Chan.
In the first few centuries of Buddhism in China there seem not to have been rigid differences among schools. All Buddhist monastics received the same ordination; one was not a Tiantai nun or a Huayan nun, but a Buddhist nun. Monastics often traveled from one teacher to another seeking the dharma, and often they didn’t limit themselves to teachers of just one tradition. That said, in time sectarian rivalries formed, and self-preservation demanded that a tradition not only have highly regarded teachers but a respectable backstory.
Most of the stories we’ve all heard about the Six Patriarchs and early Chinese masters come from records compiled during the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279. These are the stories in the classic lamplight records and koan collections that are Zen’s shared history. As I explained in Circle of the Way, however, many of these stories aren’t so much history as myth. You might call some of them “fan fiction.”
One of the things I tried to do in the book was chart a course between the traditional stories and current academic scholarship into Zen history. Most of the time, the two things don’t line up very well. Frankly, most of the story of early Zen that we’ve all heard from teachers is post hoc invention to create a respectable backstory. This includes everything we’ve ever heard about Bodhidharma. It also includes the first thousand years or so of the transmission lineage, which appears to have been invented about the year 690 to enhance the status of a just-deceased teacher named Faru, or to enhance the status of the Shaolin Temple, where the lineage was first inscribed, or both.
Knowing this, what do we do with the tradition of lineage? Keep it. The charts are probably accurate for the past several centuries, which is worthy of respect. The tradition of transmission is well established and is the principle container that has enabled Zen to be passed from generation to generation for a very long time. I see no reason to change that.
There is no story more central to Zen’s identity than that of the 6th Patriarch, Huineng. For that we can thank the Platform Sutra, which is a wonderful text written in Huineng’s voice that expresses much wisdom. However, the academic scholars insist that the original Platform Sutra ― it got longer through the centuries ― was written about 70 years after Huineng died, and probably not by someone who knew him.
Some of the stories in the Platform Sutra about Huineng’s life couldn’t have happened, the scholars say. For example, the famous poetry contest that secured Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch couldn’t have happened, because Huineng and senior student Shenxiu did not study in the Fifth Patriarch’s temple at the same time.
But the Platform in many ways became the glue that held the Zen tradition together through the upheavals of the late Tang Dynasty and after, which some other Chinese Buddhist schools did not survive. The Platform’s teachings, whoever composed them, were embraced. The literary figure of Huineng, which may or may not bear much resemblance to the real Huineng, became the ideal prototype of a Zen teacher for a very long time. It elevated the Diamond Sutra, and the prajnaparamita sutras generally, as the scriptures most central to Zen, which they are to this day.
So, while the Platform Sutra should not be read as history, the Platform itself played a critical role in Zen history. What should we do with it now? Read it, study it, absorb it, as many generations of Zen students have done.
The koan literature is rich and useful, but it isn’t history. Some of these bits of dialogue and anecdote may be based on events that really happened, and some may be outright inventions. If you want to put them into the category of myth, that’s okay with me.
But to call something myth is not to say it isn’t true, just that it isn’t factual. Truth and factuality are not always the same thing. We’ve already seen that it’s possible to string selective facts together to express something false. By the same token, myths can express something that is deeply true but not easy to talk about.
I like something the religion scholar Karen Armstrong said about myth in an NPR interview some years ago. “Myth is about the unknown,” she said. “It is about that for which initially we have no words. Myth therefore looks into the heart of a great silence.” She also said that a myth is something that in some sense may have happened once but which also happens all the time.
So, for example, when we hear the story of the Second Patriarch who stood outside Bodhidharma’s cave in the snow and finally cut off his own arm to get Bodhidharma’s attention ― and then proceeded to have a sensible conversation ― we might suspect that didn’t really happen. But if you think that story is about two guys who lived in the 6th century, you’re missing the point. In truth, the story is about you. It’s about everyone who first walks into a Zen center or temple, full of questions and confusion, seeking the dharma. You may not have even known it was the dharma you were seeking, just that you thought were missing something. Or maybe your “standing outside in the snow” moment came, or will come, later in your practice. We may not literally have to stand in the snow outside a cave and cut off our own arm. But metaphorically, maybe. In some way. It’s up to you to work out how the myth relates to you. It’s up to you to clarify what you’re doing in Zen, and whether the thing you think you are seeking is really what you’re seeking, or if you were ever really missing anything. And then Bodhidharma will say, “I have put your mind at rest.”
So, we can appreciate myths as myths and history as history, as long as we don’t mix them up. When we do mix them up, it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, one of the points I make in the book is that the fabled connection between Zen and samurai warrior martial arts is way overblown. There’s a little bit of connection, but on the whole that connection is more myth than history. But it’s a myth that has been robustly romanticized and widely believed, and this possibly was a factor in the support of Zen institutions of Japan’s military aggressions in the 20th century. I believe that for a time this myth also impacted how western Zen identified itself. My first few sesshins back in the nineteen eighties struck me as being more like Marine boot camp than anything else. The atmosphere was very macho, very martial. I understand that a macho atmosphere permeated many western Zen centers and temples of the time. From what I’ve seen this appears be less true now, possibly because samurai macho Zen has smacked into western feminism. Which is just as well.
So let’s talk about the history as history. Something that I realized while I was writing Circle of the Way is that Zen doesn’t really have a starting point. In the traditional stories Zen is said to have been founded in China by Bodhidharma at about the beginning of the 6th century, give or take. But in truth all of the elements of teaching and practice associated with early Zen got to China before Bodhidharma did. And Zen didn’t become a distinctive school of Chinese Buddhism until some time after Bodhidharma was long gone. It appears the school wasn’t known collectively as Chan Buddhism until about the 10th century or so.
The Zen that China gave the world was, for the most part, Song Dynasty Zen. The Song Dynasty began more than four centuries after we believe Bodhidharma got to China. One of the academic historians I used as a source argues that Zen didn’t really become Zen until the Song Dynasty. This scholar, Morten Schlutter, even wrote a book focusing on Song Dynasty Zen history called How Zen Became Zen. It’s actually not too bad; I learned a lot from it.
But some might ask, if Zen wasn’t Zen until then, what was it before that? When did Zen begin? This reminds me a bit of the story of King Melinda’s chariot ― if you take it apart, at what point does the collection of parts stop being a chariot? And, of course, from the perspective of Buddhism, that’s the wrong question, since chariot is just an expedient designation for something that exists only in a relative sense.
Like all other phenomena, Zen is something composed of many parts, without self-essence, that came about because of ever-changing causes and conditions, and we identify it with a particular name because we have to call it something to talk about it. I argue that to fully appreciate what Zen is, one should know something about how it came together to be what it is now, which is what Circle of the Way is about.
I came to realize that the way the story of early Zen traditionally is told, with its focus on the Six Patriarchs, is not terribly functional. The whole emphasis on a patriarchal lineage obscures the presence and contributions of women, of course. But beyond that, I’m not sure the Patriarchs are all that important. You really see Zen taking shape in the early Tang Dynasty, which began in 618, through the work of teachers who were not Patriarchs. I’m thinking in particular of Mazu Daoyi, who gave us “ordinary mind is the way,” and Shitou Xiqian, who gave us the Sandokai ― the identity of relative and absolute. We could also thank the true author of the original Platform Sutra, another Tang Dynasty work, even if we don’t know who that was. I don’t have a problem calling these early masters “Zen” masters, even if they didn’t call themselves that.
Even before that, many of the contributions of the very early Oxhead school, which was founded roughly a century before Mazu started teaching, are still deeply embedded in Zen today. This deserves to be remembered. On the other hand, the Third Patriarch was probably a name picked out of a hat to serve as a patch between Number Two and Number Four.
After the Tang Dynasty and a messy interim period came the Song Dynasty. During the Song Dynasty the many loosely aligned lineages that claimed Huineng as a common ancestor became recognized as a distinctive tradition called Chan. Frankly, what pulled it together was not just teaching and practice developed by the Tang masters but also a boatload of shared myth that had been adopted as history and gave the widely dispersed teachers and students a shared identity.
During the Song Dynasty the bits of stories called koans were preserved in the classic collections, beginning with the Blue Cliff Record in 1125. Koan contemplation was invented in the 12th century and widely embraced, although the Caodong lineages maintained a meditation practice based on earlier forms. Dogen studied with a Caodong teacher in Song China and brought that tradition to Japan in the 13th century, calling it Soto Zen. Soon other monastics brought the koan-contemplating practice to Japan also and founded the Rinzai school.
Although Zen got to Korea earlier, there was enough cross-pollination between Korean and Chinese Zen during the Song Dynasty that it can be said the Zen of Korea evolved from Song Dynasty Zen. Zen got to Vietnam earlier, too, but Vietnamese Zen today mostly evolved from the teachings of Chinese Linji masters fleeing the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.
This history is the basic foundation of Zen as it exists today, including Zen in the West. But Zen in the West is, I think, in a precarious place. It seems to be evolving in twenty directions at once. Sokei-an Sasaki said that bringing Zen to the West was like “holding a lotus to a rock, waiting for it to take root.” He believed establishing Zen in the west would take a few centuries, and he has yet to be proved wrong.
Since the Beat Zen era of the 1950s Zen has been in danger of being completely swamped by western popular culture, which may have embraced Zen as being cool but also wants it to be something other than what it is or has ever been.
In some ways it’s gotten worse since the Web was invented. All manner of people who clearly have little personal experience with a teacher and don’t know what end of the incense stick to light set themselves up as experts and spew their own opinions about Zen to the world, and it’s hard for traditional Zen to compete with play-pretend Zen. The Zen teacher James Ford wrote recently that such people “tend to contribute to a ‘dumbing down’ of our Western understanding of what Zen is. Bottom line there’s a lot of noise and a lot less signal, as some might say, out on the inter webs.”
At the same time, people who are sincerely practicing in the Zen tradition face many challenges about how to make it work. In Asia, although there have been lay Zen students since at least the early Tang Dynasty, it has always been primarily a monastic tradition. Yet most of us in the West are lay students, with jobs and families and overstuffed schedules. The old Asian model, in which monastics do most of the practicing while laypeople support them with alms, just doesn’t work here. As I wrote in Circle of the Way, there’s a lot of experimenting going on right now to figure out how to make teaching and practice more accessible to laypeople. And I wish us all a lot of luck.
But at this very fluid and precarious moment in Zen history I strongly suggest that Zen take ownership of its history, by which I mean history and not just the traditional stories. I spent the large part of three years immersed in contemporary scholarship on Zen history, and let me say that the academics, with very few exceptions, are making a mess of it. They get the facts and dates right, I assume, but their conclusions and interpretations, especially of the teachings, are often ridiculous. I have compared them to tone deaf people who write histories of opera. And some of them obviously hate opera and don’t know why anyone listens to it.
My editor at Shambhala told me that he had once hoped to pursue an advanced degree in Buddhist studies. He gave up on the idea because one of the professors for his undergrad honors thesis, which concerned the modern history of Zen, was openly antagonistic to Zen. Perhaps that was just one teacher, but I have seen the same antagonism in much of the current scholarship.
There’s a wonderfully snarky critique of academic scholarship on Zen that was written by Victor Sogen Hori, whom you might recognize as a Zen scholar who has published some wonderful work on koans. Sogen, a Canadian, spent 13 years studying as a monk in Japan and also has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University, so he’s someone with a foot in both worlds. Anyway, he wrote an introduction to Volume 2 of Heinrich Dumoulin’s Zen Buddhism: A History, in an edition published in 2006 by World Wisdom. It’s worth looking up and reading. He calls out prominent, still influential scholars who portray Zen as a bad joke and nothing but a vast game of deception. And I cite some of these same scholars in my book, because they are the mainstream of academic study. But I concur with Sogen’s opinion.
It would be great if we could open a respectful dialogue between Zen practitioners and the academic scholars, but frankly at the moment I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve seen some attempts already that did not go well. The current crop of academics too often assume that they must discount our opinions of our own tradition because, obviously, we cannot be objective, but they are blind to their own biases. But for that reason, the academic scholars must not be entrusted as the sole guardians of Zen history.
And this is important to us, because we need a respectful but honest accounting of the history to keep us grounded as we go forward. The history is embedded in Zen teachings, whether we know it or not. It is reflected in the liturgy, robes, and rituals, and in zazen itself. Some of the old myths may or may not transfer well from Asian to western culture and might be tweaked or eliminated. But the history is what it is. And it’s a wonderful history. For the most part. And the parts that are less than wonderful need to be acknowledged and understood, too. We can learn from them.
My teacher Jion Susan Postal used to talk about what she called the “three infinities.” I believe this formula was original with Susan. These are infinite kindness to the past, infinite service to the present, infinite responsibility to the future. These three infinities cannot be separated. By taking good care of the present, we take care of the past and future as well.
By understanding and appreciating Zen history ― our history ― we can better understand ourselves as Zen students and teachers. And by better understanding our history we can do a better job of taking care of this incredible legacy we’ve been given by our dharma ancestors.
Anathapindika was a lay disciple and benefactor of the historical Buddha. His generosity toward the Buddha and his monks became the ideal of lay support of the monastic sangha. His original name was Sudatta.
To appreciate Anathapindika’s role in Buddhist history, one must understand the way the first Buddhist monks lived. They took shelter in forests, sleeping among tree roots. They had no roofs over their heads other than what nature provided.
The Buddha and his disciples did not stay in any one place, except during rainy season. Most of the time they traveled from one village to another, teaching the dharma and begging for their food. Possibly the Buddha felt they should not stay in any one place so that they wouldn’t deplete any community’s food supplies. Only during the summer monsoon rains did they remain in one place, devoting themselves to intensive study and practice.
One day, about a year after the Buddha’s enlightenment, the wealthy merchant Sudatta left his home in Savatthi (which was in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in India) and traveled to Rajagaha (the site of present-day Rajgir, in the state of Bihar) on business.
His married sister lived in Rajagaha with her well-to-do husband, and Sudatta went to her home for a visit.
To his surprise, the members of the household were too busy to greet Sudatta. They were bustling about preparing a meal for many guests. Are you hosting a wedding? asked Sudatta. Is the king coming?
But Sudatta’s brother-in-law replied that the meal was for a buddha, an enlightened one, and his monks. Sudatta was astonished, then excited. He became so eager to meet the Buddha that he couldn’t sleep, and he didn’t want to wait for the dinner to meet the Buddha.
While it was still night Sudatta left his sister’s house and began to walk to where the Buddha was staying. According to tradition, Sudatta became afraid in the dark, but his determination to keep going scattered the darkness.
He found the Buddha walking in meditation in the early dawn. “Come, Sudatta,” the Buddha said, calling him by name, although they had never met before. Sudatta, awestruck, threw himself at the Buddha’s feet. “I hope you slept peacefully, Blessed One,” Sudatta said.
“One who is unbound to sensual pleasure and acquisition sleeps at ease,” the Buddha replied.
The Buddha saw that Sudatta was ready to receive teachings, and so he taught the Four Noble Truths to Sudatta. Sudatta had an opening insight that day. The Buddha would call his lay disciple Anathapindika (“feeder of the orphans or helpless”).
The First Monastery
The next day the Buddha and his monks dined at the home of Anathapindika’s sister and brother-in-law. After the dinner, Anathapindika invited the Buddha and his monks to spend the next monsoon season in in Savatthi. The Buddha accepted, adding “The Tathagatas, oh householder, take pleasure in solitude.”
Arriving home in Savatthi, Anathapindika looked for a property appropriate for the Buddha’s rainy-season retreat. He found a forest glade near Savatthi that belonged to Prince Jeta. The price was dear — 18 million gold coins. And he was allowed to buy only as much land as he could cover with his gold coins.
When the coins were laid out, only a small area on the edge of the grove remained bare. Then Prince Jeta, moved by Anathapindika’s devotion, announced that he would build an imposing gate tower there at his own expense.
Anathapindika was not done. He spent more of his wealth building a meeting hall, a dining hall, sleeping cells, wells, lotus ponds, and whatever else the monks might need during their solitary rains retreats. And he surrounded the property with a great wall. This was the very first Buddhist monastery.
Today, readers of the sutras will notice that the Buddha delivered many of his discourses “in the Jeta Grove, in Anathapindika’s Monastery.” The Buddha did not live there permanently, but it became his customary place to stay during the summer rains retreats.
Anathapindika the Householder and Student
This is not the end of Anathapindika’s story. Many stories about him and his family are recorded in the Pali texts. His wife became a devoted follower of the Buddha also, and delighted in taking care of the monks who came to the house for alms.
There were four children, three daughters and a son. The daughters also devoted themselves to the dharma. The son resisted, preferring to pursue wealth, but eventually he gained in insight also and became a benefactor of the Buddha like his father. The monks would call him “Little Anathapindika.”
Anathapindika the elder remained a student for the rest of his life. His devotion to the Buddha was such that when he came to hear the Buddha speak he sat quietly and did not ask questions. He did not want the Buddha to feel obligated to cater to him because of his patronage.
Instead, he would modestly wait to one side in case the Buddha chose to speak to him and offer instruction. If the Buddha said nothing, then sometimes then Anathapindika would speak, offering some anecdote from his daily life. And then he would wait to see if his teacher had comments or criticisms to offer. Most of the Buddha’s advice and teachings that are specifically for laypeople are taken from his instructions to Anathapindika.
When Anathapindika was on his deathbed he asked for the Buddha’s disciples Sariputra and Ananda to come to him, probably because he was too modest to make demands of the Buddha. Sariputra’s words to the dying Anathapindika are recorded in the Anathapindikovada Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 143), which include more advanced teachings, usually reserved for monks, than Anathapindika had heard before. But at that point he had renounced all attachments to worldly things and was ready to hear it.
And Anathapindika shed tears, and he said, “Venerable Sariputra, please let this sort of talk on the dharma be given to lay people clad in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing this teaching. There will be those who will understand it.” His last thought was for the enlightenment of others. And later that day, after Ananda and Sariputra left him, he died.
[This post was one I wrote for the About.com Buddhism site, but since the host company is no longer making it public, rights reverst to me.]
The generously titled Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra — Arya-Satyakaparivarta for short — is a Mahayana Buddhist Sutra written some time before the 5th century CE, possibly earlier. It appears to be canonical only within Tibetan Buddhism.
— most of which date to the 2nd century CE, give or take. But it’s of interest for a couple of reasons. One, according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, this sutra may be the only Buddhist scripture that spells out anything approximating a Buddhist “just war” theory. The other is that some alarming things are being said about it in western academia.
For example, in the book Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford University Press, 2010), an essay titled “Making Merit Through Warfare and Torture According to the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-Sutra” claims the sutra actually promotes violence, including war and torture, as a means to make merit toward realizing enlightenment.
The author, Stephen Jenkins, is a professor of religious studies at Humboldt State University.
The only English translation is by Lozang Jamspal (The Range of the Bodhisattva, a Mahayana Sutra, American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2010), which Professor Jenkins cites as the translation he is using. I acquired a copy, and read it. I assure you that the claim that the sutra somehow condones or promotes violence as a means to realize enlightenment is bogus.
Jenkins’s arguments rests heavily on analysis of other texts, Hindu and Buddhist, that Jenkins claims use similar wording and also promote violence. Among these is the Cula-Saccaka Sutta, in which, according to Jenkins, an armed bodyguard accompanying the Buddha threatened to kill a character named Saccaka, whom Jenkins calls Satyavaca, unless he conceded that kings have the authority to execute criminals. This interpretation not only misses the point of the sutta; it is simply not a factual account of the story the sutta tells. The “bodyguard” is a kind of celestial spirit, and the question Saccaka is pressed to answer by the spirit is about the nature of the self, not the virtue of executions.
So what does the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra say about warfare and torture?
Regarding torture, the speaker in the sutra, a sage named Satyavadin, advises that a king should chastise people in a benevolent manner, which is explained this way —
“When a ruler believes that punishment [of the wicked] will not be effected by means of mere obloquy, then, concentrating on love and compassion and without resort to killing, damaging of sense organs, or cutting off of limbs, he should try warning, scolding, rebuking, or beating them, or confiscating their property, exiling them from the state, tying them up, or imprisoning them. A ruler should be tough, but not in any heavier ways than these.”
Variations of this same wording are repeated several times and constitute the sutra’s advice for handling unrepentant prisoners. Here in the 21st century we do think of tying people up and beating them as “torture,” but I’m not sure the people who lived when this sutra was written would have seen it that way, especially given other options available at the time. But that’s as close to advocating “torture” as the sutra gets.
And then if the chastised individual mends his ways and behaves responsibly, the king obtains merit. However, he would obtain the same merit if he could get the prisoner to reform by reading him poetry. The punishment itself is not what earns the merit.
As far as warfare is concerned, the sutra explicitly denies any merit to wars of conquest or aggression. A ruler may use arms to defend his kingdom and protect his people, but he may only use as much force as is necessary to expel invaders. Once they are expelled, he must not seek to punish the invaders but instead try to make peace with them. Even better, he should do what he can to prevent war in the first place, such as settling disputes or making alliances with other kingdoms so that an aggressive foreign king would think twice about starting a war.
If the kingdom is invaded, the king is advised to deploy his forces in an advantageous manner to ensure victory. Injuring and killing the invaders should be avoided if possible, although it is acknowledged that this may not be possible.
But if the king has sincerely done his best to avoid war, if the self-defense is carried out so that there is no punishment or vengeance heaped upon the invaders, and if the king “undertakes these measures for the protection of the people and for the sake of their families, wives, and children without concern for himself and his property and possessions, he greatly will increase his immeasurable merit.”
It’s not warfare that earns merit, but carrying out the defense of a kingdom with the least possible harm — including harm to the invaders — that earns the merit.
The warfare section is only a small part of the Aryan-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra. Other chapters cover the Six Perfections and upaya, or skillful means, among other things. Lozang Jamspal’s translation is very clear and readable and deserves to be widely read, if only to dispel accusations about what it says.